In light of the implementation of the new Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), we are updating our article on F-1 student visas.

If you are interested in studying in the US, changes are you will need an F-1 student visa.  US immigration law allows for the admission as nonimmigrants those who are coming to the US to participate in a full time course of study.  Most students enter in F-1 status, although the J-1 visa (for exchange visitors participating in a program approved by the State Department) and M-1 visa (for vocational students) are also sometimes available.  What follows is an overview of the process of obtaining an F-1 visa and maintaining that status.  Employment related issues will be addressed in a future article.

General Requirements

As with all nonimmigrant classifications, the most important requirement to obtain an F-1 visa is the demonstration of nonimmigrant intent.  The student must maintain a home abroad that they have no intention of abandoning.  The student must be coming to the US to pursue a full course of academic study, and must demonstrate that they possess the financial resources to allow them to study without the need to engage in unauthorized employment.  Most students are able to get approved for a stay equal to the duration of their studies in the US and can study in any pre-approved institution.  However, there are important exceptions.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 imposed a number of new restrictions on foreign students.  Among these are the exclusion of foreign students from kindergarten through eighth grade at public schools and from publicly funded adult education programs.  Also, foreign students in grades 9-12 at public schools must reimburse the school for the cost of the education.  Failure to do this can result in a bar to admission.  Foreign student in public high schools are limited to 12 months of study.

Step 1:  Find a School

A prospective student must first identify a school that is qualified to sponsor a student for a visa.  A school that wishes to have foreign students enroll must first make an application with the INS.  SEVIS imposed a number of changes in the process by which the INS ensures that a school is eligible to participate in the F-1 process.  Schools must, of course demonstrate that they are legitimate educational institutions and appoint a designated school official (DSO) who will sign all necessary forms.  Schools that are currently approved must apply to the INS no later than January 30, 2003 for access to SEVIS, or they will no longer be authorized to accept foreign students.  Schools must also have completed a Form I-17 Petition for Approval of School for Attendance by Nonimmigrant Student using SEVIS and submitted a certification fee of $580 by November 15, 2002.  Those schools that have been preliminarily accepted must complete a review process no later than May 14, 2004, and after that, the INS will review the approval of the school every two years.

Step 2:  Get an I-20

For a foreign student to obtain F-1 status they must first receive a Form I-20 issued by the school that provides information about the school and the student.  Before the school can issue an I-20 the following conditions must be met:

  • The student must have made a written application to the school
  • The school must have received the student’s academic record and evidence of financial support
  • The student must meet the school’s qualifications for admission, including any English language proficiency
  • The student must have been accepted by the school

The student will receive a paper copy of the I-20, but under SEVIS schools no longer maintain their own paper copies.  Instead, schools will input the required information into SEVIS, making it available to the INS without having to contact the school directly.

Step 3:  Apply for a Visa at a US Consulate

After the school issues the I-20, it sends it to the student abroad, who then applies for a visa at their local US consulate.  To make the visa application the student must present the I-20, their passport, the necessary visa fee (which varies from location to location), Form OF-156 Application for a Nonimmigrant Visa, and evidence of financial support.  Before the State Department will issue a visa, the school must have input the required information about the student into SEVIS, which the consulate is to access prior to issuing the visa.  That the visa has been issued is also to be noted in SEVIS.

Unless there are unusual circumstances, the visa will generally be issued on the day the application is submitted, or only a few days afterward.  A prospective student who has not yet decided on a school can request a B-2 prospective student visa, and once in the US they can seek F-1 status.  The prospective student will not be allowed to begin classes until the INS approves the request for the change of status.  Also, if a prospective student does make his or her intention to enroll in a course of study clear at the time of entry, the INS could very well deny the application for the change of status.

Step 4:  Entering the US

After receiving the visa, the student may make an application for admission at a US port of entry.  The student must present their passport, visa, evidence of support and the I-20.  If admission is granted, the INS will keep one copy of the I-20 and return the second to the student.  The student is issued an I-94 Arrival/Departure Record that contains a unique control number.  This number is noted on the I-20, and becomes a sort of permanent identifier.  For example, if an F-1 student leaves the US, upon reentry they are given a new I-94.  However, the number on it is crossed out and replaced with the initial number noted on the I-20.

Eventually, the INS inspector will note in SEVIS that a student has entered the US.  Until that happens, though, the INS copy of the I-20 will be forwarded to a data processing center and then, within 10 days, returned to the sponsoring school.

Step 5:  Maintaining Status

In light of the bars on admission created in 1996, it is very important for the student to maintain their status while in the US.  There are eight important things that must be done to maintain status.

  • Keep a valid passport at all times, unless otherwise exempt from the passport requirement
  • Attend the school authorized
  • Participate in a full course of study
  • Leave the US by the completion date shown on the I-20, or request a program extension from the school’s designated student officer
  • If the student wants to change from one educational level to another (for example a bachelor’s program to a master’s) they must apply to the designated student officer
  • In most cases, work no more than 20 hours per week while school is in session
  • Not work off campus without INS authorization
  • Report any change in residence to the INS within 10 days.

Of course, one of the most important concepts in F-1 status is a “full course of study.”  INS regulations give five possible definitions for the concept.

  • Postgraduate or postdoctoral study at a college, university, conservatory or religious seminary
  • Undergraduate study at a college or university consisting of at least 12 credit hours per term, except in cases where to finish the program the student does not need to take 12 hours in the last term
  • Study at a postsecondary institution that awards associate or comparable degrees, and whose credits are accepted by at least three other institutions of higher learning
  • Study in a language, liberal arts, fine arts, or other nonvocational training program.  This study must consist of 18 hours of attendance per week, 22 hours if laboratory work constitutes the dominant part of the course of study
  • Study in a high school, providing the foreign student attends the minimum class hours per week required for graduation.

Under the SEVIS program, an F-1 student will be allowed to reduce their course load because of academic difficulties only once, and must resume a full course load at the start of the next full academic term.  In the case of illness or another medical condition that prevents the student from pursuing a full course load, the student may receive permission to take a reduced course load for an aggregate total of 12 months, which will not include any reductions based on academic difficulties.  Academic difficulties and illness are the only reasons a student will be authorized to take less than a full course load.

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